Rorate Caeli

The "Question" of Lutheran Orders

One of the bugaboos of advanced Catholic ecumenists is the widespread "misperception," as they might put it, that the Council of Trent declared Lutheran orders to be invalid. Their ultimate goal is for the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation to officially declare themselves to be in full communion, without any reordinations of Lutheran ministers by Catholic bishops. They lament that too many Catholics still automatically assume the absence of true holy orders in the Lutheran church. So they are at pains to point out, and in fact correctly, that Trent did not declare Protestant orders to be invalid. It only said that those who were not "rightly" (rite ) ordained and not sent by canonical authority, are not lawful ministers of the Word and sacraments. Notice that the end of the passage does not conclude saying these men are not valid ministers. Rite in this passage does not have to refer to the sacramental validity of an ordination, but can signify its having been conferred in accord with the canons or with the authorization of a legitimate superior. Our modern enthusiasts for the validity of Lutheran orders conclude therefore that the ordinations conferred by early Lutheran leaders were at most illicit, without prejudice to their possible validity.

But another plank is needed in their argument for the validity of Lutheran orders, since generally it was at most simple priests (like Luther himself) who ordained pastors for "reformed" congregations. And so ecumenists have brought forth an old theological question as to whether a simple priest can validly ordain under certain circumstances. There are in fact some ambiguous texts from past centuries, including a famous letter from the Pope to an abbot in England, which on their face seem to imply precisely that. On the other hand, these rare texts can also be explained differently, since the word "ordain" can also signify something like an authoritative designation of someone for the office of the priesthood without implying that the same authority would sacramentally lay on hands. At any rate, some ecumenists think they have gotten the camel's nose under the tent with this one: they argue that, in accord with the rare historical precedents as they see them, a simple priest can ordain in a situation of necessity, and that 16th century reformed congregations were in a state of necessity, having been condemned by Rome and the bishops. Oh yes, they admit, we Catholics officially see a defectus ordinis in Protestant ministries, but that does not have to be interpreted as invalidity, or so they claim.

It is difficult to see how this argument can be made with a straight face, since the alleged situation of necessity had been created by the "reformed" congregations themselves! And as for the fact that Trent did not declare Protestant orders invalid, this is irrelevant, since the same criteria under which Leo XIII later declared Anglican orders invalid apply equally to Lutheran and other Protestant orders. Anglican orders are invalid, taught Leo XIII, because the Anglican ordinal had cut out every reference to sacrifice and true priesthood in the traditional liturgy of ordination. The absence of such explicit language in a later rite formed by pruning the received rite is not the same thing as the possible absence of such language in the most primitive Catholic formulas of ordination, and thus it cannot be argued that Anglican orders are just as valid as orders conferred in the subapostolic and primitive age. This is because deliberately cutting out received references to sacrifice gave the Anglican ordination formulas a signification different from the signification of ancient liturgies in which sacrificial references surrounding the laying on of hands make it clear that a sacrificing priest is being "made" by the decisive words.

So even if we were to grant that validly ordained priests who joined Luther's movement had the power to ordain priests, we would still need to examine the words and rites they employed, and if they had the same anti-sacerdotal signification as the Anglican ordinal, then the ordinations were pseudo-ordinations.

So let us consider the 16th century ordination liturgies of the "highest" of "high-church" Protestants, those of Norway and Sweden. It has become received wisdom in some circles, and not only among Swedish Lutherans themselves, that the Lutheran Church of Sweden has apostolic succession. During the first years of the Reformation in Sweden, a validly ordained bishop continued ordaining after the split with Rome. But on the issue of the elimination of all sacrificial language, the reformed ordinals of Norway and Sweden were no different from their Anglican counterparts.

Conclusion: the orders of even "high-church" Lutheran pastors and bishops must be held invalid in virtue of the same principles Leo XIII applied to Anglicans.